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Executive director of the Hilton Head Island Economic Development Corporation shares his plans

donkirkmanExecutive director of the Hilton Head Island Economic Development Corporation shares his plans

If it takes big bucks to generate big business, then Hilton Head is on the right track. Back in June, Hilton Head Town Council approved a hefty $450,000 budget for the Hilton Head Island Economic Development Corp.’s 2014-2015 fiscal year. A chunk of that went to hiring its new executive director, Don Kirkman, who started in August. We caught up with Kirkman to give us a glimpse of his plans for this coming year, and the potential he sees for economic growth on the island.

Hilton Head Monthly: How familiar were you with Hilton Head before being tapped for this position?
Don Kirkman: Very familiar. Certainly not an expert, but I have vacationed and traveled here many times. More than half of my economic development career has been working in coastal areas in Florida and North Carolina. So I was able to see the island through the filter of economic development.

HHM: Using that filter, what is your view of the island?
DK: What I have observed here, and this is consistent with my experience elsewhere, is that there are lots of economic development opportunities, but one has to find opportunities that would in some areas be considered non-traditional. In many areas of the country, the manufacturing sector or the distribution sector may drive the economic development. Here, hospitality is the largest economic engine. So you’re looking for opportunities that are complementary, that diversify but don’t threaten the natural resources and assets that make the area a world-class, globally recognized destination.

HHM: Could you give an example of what you mean?
DK: Sure. Drawing from my North Carolina experience, I was in Carteret County economic development for 10 years. We built a marine sciences cluster there. We recruited the North Carolina State’s Center for Marine Sciences and Technology, and were able to connect Duke, the UNC Institute of Marine Sciences, the federal NOAA lab, and the NC State lab in a way that could help not only support collaborative grant opportunities and research but also put a brand around that to raise and elevate the visibility of Carteret County.

HHM: What has been your impression of the island so far?
DK: There are companies here you probably would not be aware of if you were here as a visitor, even a repeat visitor. And there are an extraordinary number of extremely talented and innovative and engaged people here. I think one of the keys to our success long-term is to tap into that network of very talented people.

Almost without exception, when I meet with someone here they will throw two or three ideas at me that have the potential to further the goals of economic diversification and growth.

HHM: Do you treat the island as separate from the mainland? How do you tie Hilton Head and Bluffton together economically while keeping Hilton Head’s unique identity?
DK: We have to be mindful first and foremost that this is the Hilton Head Island Economic Development Corp., birthed and funded by the Town of Hilton Head Island. So it’s paramount that the geography is the incorporated town of Hilton Head Island. Having said that, I’m a big proponent of regionalism. What goes on in neighboring communities, towns, counties, all of that is important to the long-term prosperity of Hilton Head Island. And we need to partner and collaborate whenever possible with our allies in those jurisdictions.

Will there be times when we may compete in new investment or job creation? Yes. Those situations will no doubt arise. Ultimately, a client will choose where it makes the most sense for them to locate. Some use the term “coopetition,” where you largely cooperate, but there are times when you compete.

HHM: What are your goals for your first year at the helm?
DK: I’m doing a lot of listening, meeting individually with each board member, then each Town Council member. The EDC has a program it has articulated to Town Council, which was part of the budgeting process. The goals are: 1. Retain and expand existing business. 2. Attract new business. 3. Make sure there’s a sound infrastructure in place to support business.

HHM: Are there any specific efforts in place to make life and business better for existing companies here?
DK: I think that’s the bread and butter of any EDC, to keep the companies you have and grow the companies that are already here. There’s a natural ebb and flow to the success of business that the EDC may not be able to impact at all. However, if there are companies here that have unique opportunities or challenges where we can intercede to help them or refer them to another resource, we’ll try to do that.

We don’t have any grant or loan programs, but one of the goals we’d have for an entrepreneur with a good idea is to connect them to these angel investor networks and business counseling services, like SCORE, to help nurture them through that process.

HHM: Is there a ready-made labor base of some kind that you can use to entice businesses and industries with?
DK: There’s been a lot of work done that looked at industry clusters and how a density of activity in one area tends to create additional activity in that area. Some are direct competitors, but there are also suppliers and spinoffs. I would say right now on Hilton Head, other than hospitality and the service industries that support that, and the whole real estate model, there’s not a current density of any one activity here that could be called a cluster. There are two or three companies doing defense-related things, two or three health-related products, so not a cluster, but there are definitely opportunities to grow businesses in those sectors.

HHM: What’s the draw for companies to uproot themselves and transplant themselves to Hilton Head?
DK: A lot of companies now can locate anywhere. A business owner can choose to locate that business where the business owner wants to live. Many of the companies that exist here got here for that reason – they loved Hilton Head Island, it’s a fabulous place to live. They can wake up in the morning and walk on the beach before they go to work, enjoy the sunset on Calibogue Sound on the way home, and interact with really smart, vibrant people. So it is the lifestyle, at the end of the day, that gives us a leg up.